Academic journal article Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council

The Humanities Are Dead! Long Live the Humanities!

Academic journal article Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council

The Humanities Are Dead! Long Live the Humanities!

Article excerpt

The humanities have everything to do with the human condition, understanding human nature and human problems.

--NEH Overview Fact Sheet

The academic disciplines and values of the humanities in western cultures run from the Greek trivium-grammar, logic, rhetoric-to modern-day studies in history, philosophy, religious studies, literature, languages, art history, and some interdisciplinary studies. What is their future, and what is their relationship to honors education? Are the humanities dying or dead?

Performing a Google search for "Humanities Are Dead" yields a number of arguments on both sides, from a 2010 article series in The Chronicle of Higher Education with subsequent blogposts to opinion pieces in the New York Times and Huffington Post. There is even a high-school senior's award-winning play of that title performed at the Dobama Theatre in Cleveland this summer in my neck of the woods. My favorite is an online andytown post of June 24, 2013:

Here's an idea: let's put a one year moratorium on any "death of the humanities" articles, either by outsiders or insiders. I want every academic or employee of a university out there to agree not to participate in this seemingly weekly emerging body of texts. I want senior academics to stop telling people that they would never do what they did if they had to do it now. I want newspapers to stop printing them as a way of fueling a flame with questionable statistics and highly generalized hypotheses based on personal experience. And I want the headlines of these articles to be less provocative and more honest; let's stay away from "The Decline and Fall of the English Major." After a year, instead of coming to quick judgments, we'll talk about what we've learned

Now that this one-year moratorium has expired, of course, I can write this essay and use this title.


Comics on television routinely tell jokes about the epitome of a useless education, namely a major in comparative literature (my field)-substitute English or philosophy Universities are touting the professional majors and the pragmatic value of a college education. Liberal arts colleges are adding master's programs in professional fields in order to stay afloat. STEM projects, and the dollars to support them, abound For two decades the glut of PhDs in English in a poor job market has caused some academics to warn that graduating so many is immoral. Higher education is more and more run as a big business, and boards of trustees hiring a president or even a provost look to the CEO as a model. Administrative talk teems with terms such as, pardon the expression, "productivity," "stakeholders," "learning outcomes," and "data-driven decision-making." Meanwhile, public schools are "teaching to the test" more than they are developing critical thinking and creative imagination Making teachers and administrators, their jobs on the line, responsible for student "success" has even encouraged cheating via changing test results Government research funding? The National Science Foundation reports an appropriation of c. $7.2 billion while the National Endowment for the Humanities reports $146 million, a ratio of nearly 50:1. The NEH funding is the lowest in constant dollars since 1971 (National Alliance for the Humanities), and the National Endowment for the Arts reports that its funding has also remained flat this year at about the same level as the NEH. For FY 2013,

NEH grant applicants requested $480 million, and only about 30% of this amount could be granted (National Alliance for the Humanities). In contrast to NEH's flat budget again this year, the NSF reports that its appropriation rose by 4. 2%, or $287.8 million.

Outside academia the qualitative signs of humanities life are moribund. The fourth estate has proliferated into increasingly specialized magazine niches, and newspapers have lost readership and funding. Remaining print news sources have descended into "info-bits" and have dumbed down formerly thoughtful and well-researched journalistic essays to a form digestible by readers with a limited attention span. …

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